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PERSPECTIVE ON CULTURE : Quebec Isn't a Model for America : The 'bilingualism threat' is a political red herring. Assimilation is the norm for immigrants to America.

November 05, 1995|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

Pity les Quebecois. In the wake of Monday's narrow defeat of the most recent campaign by French-Canadian secessionists to break away from English-speaking Canada, it appears that the bitter family argument north of our border will continue for years to come.

But save a little sympathy for nosotros, los Latinos. Because as long as Canadians argue over Quebec, we will have to defend ourselves against folks who out of simple ignorance or confusion--and sometimes plain ambition, malice or worse--accuse us of trying to create a Quebec in this country.

I have lost track, over the years of writing about issues like bilingual education, of how many times readers have written or called to express concern about the persistence of Spanish in Southern California, Texas or Florida, and cited Quebec as what they most fear.

Given the anguish Canadians are going through, and the likelihood that the hair-thin margin of Monday's vote--50.6% to 49.4% against secession--will prompt yet another divisive referendum, I can readily accept the premise that the public policy test that Quebec poses for Canada is about as tough as they come. But I cannot understand why so many people draw simplistic and scary comparisons between Quebec and states like California.

I suppose one reason is the mistaken perception that Spanish is flourishing to the point of overtaking English. That is the result of people in cities like Los Angeles or New York hearing it so much. But the reality is very different. So many people are speaking foreign languages because there are not enough English classes to meet the demand by new immigrants eager to learn the primary language of this country, which they correctly see as a key to success. And research shows that even if parents continue to use their native language at home, their children prefer English. And thanks to movies, MTV and the like, those kids are learning English faster than ever.

This is different from the situation in Quebec, which has been French-speaking for hundreds of years, with several generations consciously choosing to keep their language and culture distinct from English Canada.

Unfortunately, the misperceptions about Spanish are fed by cynics looking to advance other agendas. It is no coincidence that U.S. English and other organizations that push for laws to make English the official language were spawned by groups that work to restrict immigration. Language is just one more way to frighten people about foreigners.

But worse, to my mind, are the political leaders who play to these fears, most recently House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The day of the Quebec vote, he told an Atlanta audience that Canada's difficulties prove the dangers of bilingualism, which he claimed "continue(s) to grow" in this country. His solution: "We should insist on English as a common language." As noted, he is plain wrong on the first point and is unlikely to find anybody who will disagree with him on the second.

The most charitable explanation for how the Speaker--who fancies himself not just a scholar of U.S. history but also a knowledgeable advocate of this nation's high-tech, "Third Wave" future--came to such a wrongheaded conclusion is that he lapsed into the superficial thinking more than one critic has found in his writings and history lectures.

But even a former history professor from West Georgia College knows the many historical differences between Quebec and the Southwest, or even Florida, that preclude the likelihood that the United States could someday face a wrenching decision like Quebec.

I suspect that Gingrich chose to raise the red herring of bilingualism for the same reason another prominent Republican, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, used it a few weeks ago in a speech before the American Legion attacking bilingual education: to score political points.

Such cynical posturing could feed the very monster Dole and Gingrich want to slay. By attacking the use of Spanish, they could actually turn it into a greater symbol of pride among Latinos. And by trying to limit its use by federal law--an ironic posture for conservatives, since regulating language is one of the most intrusive forms of government interference on individual expression and economic freedom I can imagine--they prod Latinos into organizing politically to fight such efforts.

If we're looking for similarities to Quebec, isn't that how they got into their language mess? French Canadians felt a need to organize politically against the perceived insensitivity of their countrymen. The result was the Parti Quebecois, which promulgated harsh French-only laws and ultimately tried to find a way out of the Canadian federation.

Until recently, this country's history of laws governing language use was admirably libertarian, according to the fine 1992 book by James Crawford, "Hold Your Tongue." A similarly calm, pragmatic attitude is what's needed to help us avoid the anguish of our neighbor to the north.

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